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Where have all the bluefish gone? And through generations, how much a part of our very culture have they become?

Fishing for bluefish, or just watching their frenzy in the water, has been as much a part of life on Long Island as our farms, beaches, pine barrens and vineyards. But at a recent meeting in Setauket, hosted by the State DEC, there was confirmed what many have regrettably noticed of late: that bluefish have come close to disappearing altogether. Some strict limits are in store for how many can be fished. And when you see the numbers the DEC throws around, maybe it’s another case where “we have seen the enemy, and they are us.”

Are the regulators of our bluefish missing the boat? It’s not only the State DEC, but regulators and policy makers for the multi-state fisheries, such as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Checking their website at asmfc.org tells quite a story, but maybe not the story they intend. It can be said that the recent DEC gathering in Setauket took a similar, hapless direction — likely too little, too late.

Reading between the lines, the unintended story is this: bluefish are another natural resource that we have over-harvested, in this case mainly by recreational fishing. Recreational fishing accounts for 87% of the bluefish taken from marine waters.

Bluefish are not found off the West Coast of the United States. Indeed, the eastern Pacific Ocean is one of the very few areas of the world that bluefish don’t inhabit. Back in 1986, an astonishing record of 151.5 million pounds of bluefish were taken by recreational anglers on the East Coast. But by 2018, it was dramatically lower; recreational fishing harvested 13.5 million pounds of bluefish. Moreover, AFSMFC reported that bluefish harvested in 2018 were “considerably smaller” in body weight than those harvested in 2017. Last year also marked the lowest commercial harvest for bluefish.

Some believe that increasing ocean temperatures are to blame, causing bluefish to migrate to waters farther north. More concerning is the report circulated at the current, annual global climate talks in Madrid. They announced findings that oxygen levels in the world’s oceans have been dropping since 1960, owing to climate change as well as nutrient runoff from farm and lawn fertilizers.

Back at Setauket, fishermen at the DEC gathering raised the standard explanation, though with less confidence, that bluefish populations will vary in 10-year cycles. While historically, however, they all don’t agree on almost anything, they agreed at the DEC meeting that there has never been a “cyclical variation” of this magnitude for bluefish.

All these definitely factor into the problem, of course, but whatever the cause, the response from regulators never changes: simply cut the allowable catch limits, to be raised later. From a broader perspective, raising and dropping catch limits has failed miserably. Yet all the regulators, as well as recreational and commercial anglers, concur on this: bluefish are diminishing in size and now vanishing as never before.

Take party boats. Fifteen bluefish are the maximum allowed per person aboard. Who would need that many all these years? The DEC is suggesting three might be enough. Hello? For its part, the commercial limit is a mind-boggling 10,000 pounds per day from January to April, which the DEC might now cut to “only” 5,000 pounds. The 1,000-pound commercial daily limit in effect from April to October might be cut to 750 pounds. Is there a message here?

Not long ago, when we took so much for granted, “blues” could be seen in their huge, loose schools, covering literally acres of local marine waters that they would churn like washing machines. And farther out, they were known to swim in schools covering an astonishing tens of square miles.

A “bluefish blitz,” a sight once as common as it was exciting to see, was where blues would chase along the shoreline after such prey as shrimp and bait-sized weakfish, anchovies, jacks, almost anything, in a frenzied chase through the surf zone with bewildering speed. Are these blitzes and super large schools sadly no more?

Bluefish have enormous energy, making them a favorite sport fish for their remarkable fight on the line. Being voracious eaters, their incredibly sharp teeth and shearing jaws enable them to take prey in large pieces. Amazingly, more than 70 species of fish have been found in the stomach contents of a single bluefish. They can live up to 12 years. The record catch for a blue, off the North Carolina coast, is 31 lbs., 12 oz. And they can grow to a length of 39 inches.

While bluefish will devour almost anything that swims, they themselves are constantly preyed upon for their entire life cycle by striped bass, tuna, sharks, seals, rays, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and many other species. Imagine a dark night in their world! For any understandably ferocious bluefish, life sure ain’t easy.

Bluefish hold an interesting place in the human diet. Because they are a fatty fish, they spoil rapidly. This results in their being found for sale at market close to where they are caught. This in turn keeps the price of bluefish relatively low. Still, they must be refrigerated and consumed soon after purchase. Thus gratifying it is to know they will never be suitable as an “industrial fish.”

A significant protein and Omega-3 fatty acid source, bluefish as food unfortunately is high in mercury and PCBs compared to mackerel or albacore tuna. Consequently, the FDA warns that young kids, along with women of childbearing age, have no more than one serving of bluefish weekly.

But fishing for blues at their youngest stage, known as “snappers,” at a life stage when they’ve yet to absorb pollutants, and easily cooked (being less fatty than adults allows snappers quickly to be grilled/fried) is a culinary joy in itself, and a memorable introduction to fishing for many a L.I. youngster. Riverhead’s snapper tournaments, however, have lately failed to land any snappers at all.

Our taste for bluefish may well have become a major factor in their sharp decline. A telltale comment this year from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission comes across as typically bureaucratic gibberish: “Bluefish are overfished, but are not experiencing overfishing.” Really? At their asmfc.org website, they seem begrudgingly to back away from this awkward conclusion, with just as awkward an explanation of how they have updated their survey methods. Now ASMFC taps themselves on the back, grateful that their enlightened methodology shows that the decline in the bluefish population is far worse than they had calculated.

The news isn’t entirely bad for our local fisheries. Witness a welcome rebound in the Long Island Sound, resulting from decisive policy changes by all the stakeholders. Striped bass and seals are back after many years. And what brighter glimmer of hope could there be when several hundred dolphins swam up the East River and poured their way joyfully into the Sound!

In his insightful, bestselling book, “Four Fish,” Paul Greenberg shares a story of fishing on the Sound with his teenage daughter on a party boat, a dying form of angler enterprise. An oldtimer aboard with them complained of how few fish there are these days, and how for years he would catch hundreds of pounds of tuna off Nova Scotia, and in one trip out of Rhode Island, over a thousand pounds of cod fillets. Then he remarked that the author and his daughter were welcome to take whatever he caught, as he didn’t eat fish.

Vanishing bluefish bring to mind the compelling metaphor on a grand scale of the canary in the coal mine. Harvesting millions of pounds of bluefish recalls how we wiped out almost all the buffalo, and overfished local oysters to the point that they disappeared from the wild in the early 1950s. Consider as well the “mystery” of the vanished Peconic Bay scallops. And see in an earlier column explaining the dramatic loss of butterflies and other pollinators owing to the Bayer Corp.’s profitable (and monstrous) pesticide.

Author Greenberg leaves us with a deeply sobering point: we are doing to fish exactly what we have already done to land mammals and birds. We choose a few species for domestication, such as cattle, sheep, pigs and goats, along with chickens, ducks and geese, and turn our backs on the rest as they fall slowly into extinction. Now we “dewild,” as he terms it, the four species of fish that dominate the marketplace, the “Four Fish” for which his book is entitled: salmon, cod, sea bass and tuna. Farmed fish make up about half the fish that humans consume. For reasons we have discussed, bluefish cannot be farmed profitably. Thus the fate of the disappearing bluefish might be sealed.

An extreme limit on bluefish fisheries — truly responsive to a desperate situation — over a prolonged period, along with an aggressive program to curtail nutrient runoff to address the broader problem of deoxygenation, offer steps we can take that could have an early, beneficial effect. Now is the time where regulation has to be tough. In an earnest hope that it’s not too late, let’s revive our role as the world’s stewards.

Whither the ubiquitous bluefish? The answer lies with us. Common sense dictates that we act far more decisively with restraint, care and rationality as fish in the wild face their unprecedented peril. A point from the epilogue in “Four Fish” is worth repeating: “Never write off the wild ocean. It can always surprise you.”

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg